The Judas Priest Controversy: Backwards Messages and A Tragic Death

Judas Priest Hammersmith 1989

Judas Priest have had an interesting and turbulent history – including going on trial in the USA having being accused of causing the suicide of a boy through inserting backward / subliminal messages into their songs.

Perhaps Judas Priest have the craziest history of any metal band. Including Manowar. Or even Metallica. One that makes Spinal Tap look like a spoof documentary. Er, no hang on…

If you were to make a list of Stereotypical Things That Metal Bands Do, they’d score highly on the list:

  • Sing about robots a lot. (Grinder, The Hellion, Metal Gods, Painkiller etc etc)? Check. Say what you like about Wham! but they never sang about robots…
  • Produce a ludicrous and brilliantly (unintentionally?) hilarious video. Breaking The Law depicts the band robbing a bank by opening the safe with the power of unplugged Flying V guitars?  Check. The acting in that Breaking The Law video made Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Gielgud. I love the way the drummer appears in the banking hall as if by magic.

Other things Judas Priest have done?

  • Denied ever “selling out” and then recorded songs with Stock, Aitken and Waterman? Check. (Still not entirely clear what happened there).
  • Replaced the lead singer with a guy in their own tribute band, (a story that the film Rock Star was based upon)? Check.
  • Recorded a thirteen minute song about the Loch Ness Monster? Check.

Judas Priest 1989

Perhaps the saddest and most bizarre episode in the band’s career was when they were accused of deliberately inserting backward messages into their album Stained Class, (on their cover of Better By You, Better Than Me) which, it was alleged, drove two young teenagers to enter into a suicide pact. One boy died, the other survived, albeit with major reconstructive surgery to his face.  There was a superb TV documentary about this many years ago called “Dream Deceivers” which featured the families involved, court footage and the band’s reaction to the very serious and somber events as they developed. It was a stunning film, made at a time in America when rock music was under scrutiny for its potential effects on the behaviour of children.

Time to swap the leather outfits for something more fashionable....

The prosecution fell apart when it was discovered that the “expert” they had used to find the backwards messages had also found secret messages on boxes of Ritz crackers, $5 bills, chocolate biscuits and other everyday items, which rather damaged his credibility.

The documentary showed the moment in court when the records were played backwards and it did indeed make a sound at one point which sounded vaguely like “Do It” – but as the band pointed out “Do what? Mow the lawn?”. (A better backwards message might be “you’ve just ruined your stylus”…). The sound was caused entirely randomly by the way Rob Halford sang a particular line.

Rob Halford KK Downing Glenn Tipton 1989 Odeon

The judge was also not entirely convinced the prosecution had proven that a message only audible when played backwards might influence an individual’s actions. I owned the album on cassette. Perhaps that saved me: all that rewinding would have ruined my Sony Walkman.

The documentary then showed Halford, dressed demurely in a suit, then demonstrate his singing into a microphone for the judge’s benefit. This showed how such messages could be created quite innocently and at random. After he had recovered his hearing, and his nerves, the judge rightly dismissed the case and justice was done.

Record # 49 Judas Priest – Better By You, Better Than Me

Pictures copyright and taken at Hammersmith Odeon in 1989 by EveryRecordTellsAStory. All Rights Reserved.

Categories: Heavy Metal

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27 replies

  1. The documentary was really enlightening. I still have it on tape. I recall the band also presented a piece of tape, from Exciter. The line “Stand back for exciter, salvation is his task,” was played backwards, and resembled, “I asked for a peppermint, I asked for her to get one.”


  2. Oh! And regarding Stock, Aitken and Waterman: I recall an old Guitar magazine had an extended interview with Tipton and Downey, around the time of Priest Live, so 1987. Tipton stated that they recorded three songs including a cover of “You Are Everything” by the Stylistics. He said it was done as an experiment, and was never intended to be released. I’ve never seen it on bootleg either.


  3. …and speaking of justice (for all), there was a similar case (inevitably) with Metallica some time in the 90s, though i think without the stylus-wrecking nonsense of backwards messages. their lawyer argued that Shakespeare could no more be held responsible for teen suicides influenced by Romeo and Juliet. proverbial sledgehammer to crack a cliche but point well made.


  4. why do people always look to deep into things and find meanings that dont exist


  5. The Judas Priest trial also featured in a similar documentary in 1991 called Dancing With The Devil where Americans’ fascination with heavy metal and Satanism was looked at. Sounds like they used the same footage of the trial, but I liked Glen Tipton’s quote in a interview when he said, “Back in 1978, we couldn’t even afford our lunch, let alone the expense to put hidden messages on an album.”
    The documentary also interviewed Deicide who said they were possessed by demons and some British preacher who played Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” backwards and it supposedly goes “It’s fun to smoke marijuna.”
    The depressing part was at the begining where they showed a bunch of Christians burning record albums. All I could think was, “Why don’t they let me have them?”


  6. ps, Did the tribute singer form an accoustic band after he left Judas Priest? That was the one bit of Rock Star that really bugged me.


  7. Somewhere on the web is a long video of a presentation at a conference which involved either sceptics or high-end hi-fi equipment (note: there is not much overlap between these two groups). The speaker played the famous passage from Stairway to Heaven backwards, and nothing was legible. Then she showed the alleged text and, reading along, it really did sound like what was claimed. The human mind works by trying to find patterns; sometimes it finds them where they don’t exist.

    Of course, there have been real events of this. One case is speech played backward as an effect in a song; maybe the Beatles were the first to do this. Played backwards it sounds of course perfectly normal. Then there were those who put in such messages as a reference to the accusations; I think Iron Maiden did one of these.


    • Yes – on Piece of Mind, I think Nicko McBrain says “What ho said the the man with the three bonce”, or something. They did it deliberately to mess with the minds of the Moral Majority…


      • I always thought that Nicko claimed he said, “Don’t mess with t’ings you don’ understand,” backwards. But I LONG ago lost the magazine interview where he talked about it. But it was RIP Magazine where I read it.


      • My memory of reading their biography may be flawed. What you say is ringing a bell but I think me might say both – in a thick Geordie accent.


      • Again, funny you should say that, because I could swear that Nicko said he was doing an Idi Amin impersonation. But my memories could be completely jumbled. I made a huge error in judgement five years ago, when I gave away all my old magazines.


      • I did the same about fifteen years ago. They go for a fiver each on eBay, but then I’d have had to store them somewhere…
        I think Idi Amin was a Geordie… At weekends…


      • I did try selling a few on eBay but to ship from Canada, our postage rates are absolutely obscene here. It quickly became obvious that it wasn’t practical, so I ended up giving them away to make space. At least a guy who is a true metal lover owns them now.


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